BOSTON – The Bruins players heard the words from a disapproving media, from an embarrassed fan base and from an angry management, and they responded in tangible fashion in their very next chance to get on the ice.
There may never be a frank admittance that the Bruins were way too soft in their response to Tuukka Rask getting butt-ended in the side of the head and knocked out of Tuesday night's loss in Columbus, but they were aware that everybody around them was in almost uniform agreement that what they did in response simply wasn't enough. The Bruins harnessed those negative feelings and whatever deep-seeded regret they may have been harboring, and they took it out on the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 4-1 win at TD Garden on Thursday night.
It's never going to be the Pier Six brawl special that it was back with the group that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and it certainly isn't going to be the dirty, mean and nasty stuff that the 1970's Bruins pulled off during the wonderfully dark ages of the sport. But it was clear the Bruins wanted to get back to being a hard team to play against after really losing their way over the last few months, and evidence abounded that they were getting back to their game.
"I thought it was a great effort by everyone. We competed hard, supported each other well and I thought Jaro [Halak] made some excellent saves. So it felt like up and down our lineup everybody contributed, and it was a great effort," said Patrice Bergeron. "We always want to be [a hard team to play against]. We weren't really happy with our last two efforts, and you're facing a team that's playing good hockey [in Pittsburgh]. I thought we responded to the challenge well, but we have to carry that momentum on.
"It's about getting better as a team. There are going to be stretches where you need to work harder to get the result. So we keep working on it and keep getting better, but the way we competed and the mindset up and down the lineup was great to see."
A hit from behind on Chris Wagner in the corner drew every member of the Bruins in response early in the game, and Evgeni Malkin was tossed around in the corner by Zdeno Chara after a fairly innocent poke at Jaroslav Halak early in the game as well. Later it was Torey Krug responding to a cross-check to the back of Matt Grzelcyk in front of the Bruins bench, and Krug and Patric Hornqvist throwing down for a legit hockey fight after serving matching roughing penalties for their initial fracas.
Chris Wagner was only credited with one hit, which was unintentionally humorous as he was throwing his body around with heavy physical play throughout the game, and clearly heeded the call from the Bruins coaching that some of their physical players needed to draw the team into fire a little more often than they had been doing.
Combine all that with rock solid goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, strong special teams play and secondary scoring to go along with Perfection Line excellence, and the Bruins finally again resembled the team that pushed out to such a big lead earlier in the season. Certainly they were again a difficult team to play against rather than the pushovers that showed up in Columbus a few nights ago, and that was the topic of the day from the coaching staff ahead of the game.
"We had a different meeting on some things we needed to do better as a group. It wasn't necessarily a challenge, it was a reset on supporting one another all over the ice. You hope [that] if you do that to get pucks back, it'll bleed into anything else that transpires - the physical play and everything else that goes with it," said Bruce Cassidy. "I thought that part was good. We addressed the group about a little bit of our mentality. We feel we're winners in that locker room, but you have to prepare to win, you have to compete to win and go through the process of winning. I thought today was a good first step to getting back to who we are."
The good news for the Bruins is that throughout this identity crisis, malaise or cruise control session they have been mired in for the last couple of months, they are still eight points ahead of the Lightning and 11 points ahead of the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division. Thursday night's win over a strong Penguins team was a reminder of how good the Bruins can be when they are playing the right way and actually inject some urgency, effort and attitude into their game.
Now the Bruins need to follow up on the win over the Penguins, finish up strong in their final two games ahead of the bye week and NHL All-Star break, and then hit the ground running with these kinds of energized efforts in the second half of the season starting at the end of January. They can't allow last night's formula to slip away again, or they would be in danger of embracing the same season-long malaise that ended up dooming the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of last year's playoffs.
"It's not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don't have that kind of group anymore," said Torey Krug. "But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn't mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It's been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we'll be good]."
The Bruins lost their way for a while, but it didn't end up costing them anything to this point provided the wakeup call in Columbus continues to serve as a reminder that the Bruins can be great if they actually want to work for it, and for each other.